Gender identity 101: what does it mean to be non-binary?

July 14, 2023

Image created with photograph by RODNAE Productions at Pexels

Jamie Aldridge explores the complexity of the many gender-nonconforming identities

Today is international Non-Binary People’s Day which has been observed each year on 14th July since 2012. Its aims is to raise awareness around the issues faced by non-binary people around the world.

Non-binary is an umbrella term for gender identities that are neither 100% male nor 100% female‍; identities that are outside the gender binary. Non-binary people may feel their gender identity is androgynous (both masculine and feminine), neutral (neither masculine nor feminine), or varies over time (genderfluid).

It’s a complicated identity that’s not as well-understood or as visible as the terms transgender or trans, so people might not feel able to be open about their non-binary gender identity.

The term covers many experiences of gender identity that don’t align with my own.

What issues do non-binary people face?
There are a number of issues faced by non-binary people, such as:

  • Lack of awareness of what it means to be non-binary and the different labels non-binary people might use to describe themselves, such as genderqueer or neutrois;
  • Lack of awareness of gender-neutral forms of address, such as the gender neutral title ‘Mx.’ (pronounced ‘mix’), use of they/them pronouns, or use of neopronouns such as xe/xem and fae/faer;
  • Feeling forced to live in one gender role because of societal gender norms;
  • Lack of awareness about non-binary gender identities among healthcare staff, leading to difficulties accessing gender-affirming treatment (being addressed using the right name or pronouns, for example) or transition-related healthcare (such as hormone therapy);
  • Higher incidence of mental health conditions due to discrimination and prejudice;
  • Societal prejudice against anyone who ‘queers’ (doesn’t conform to) the gender roles enforced by our society and upbringing;
  • Lack of legal recognition of non-binary gender identities; currently, the only gender options on identification documents are M (male) and F (female). These options exclude non-binary people who don’t identify with the M or F labels.

Research by Stonewall consistently shows that non-binary people feel the need to hide their identity in order to avoid discrimination, to an even greater degree than binary trans people. Stonewall also report that two in five non-binary people (37%) aren’t out at work and 55% of non-binary people said that their GP did not have a good understanding of their needs as a trans person.

If a non-binary person’s friends, family and wider community understand more about gender diversity, they are less likely to face these issues.

L-R: the non-binary, genderqueer and genderfluid pride flags

How common is it to be non-binary?
It’s difficult to give an accurate figure of the number of people who identify as non-binary. The 2021 census found that 0.5% of people stated their gender identity was different to the one they were assigned at birth, which would include non-binary identities. However this question was optional and some people may have chosen not to answer due to worries about discrimination.

Stonewall’s Rainbow Britain report found that 1% of respondents identified as trans men, 1% identified as non-binary, and 1% identified as genderqueer or genderfluid, with less than 1% identifying as either a trans woman or agender.

These statistics may not reflect the true number of non-binary people living in the UK, partly because non-binary people don’t have legal recognition in the same way trans men and trans women do.

This may also be due to the lack of social awareness or acceptance of non-binary identities, leading people to hide the fact that they’re non-binary. Galop found that 41% of trans people have been the victim of a hate crime because of their gender identity.

The Trans Lives Survey found that 73% of non-binary people reported being subjected to transphobia from strangers on the street. The same survey found that found that 99% of all respondents had experienced transphobia on social media.

Do all non-binary people call themselves ‘non-binary’?
Different people use different terms to describe themselves. For example, a gay woman could describe herself as a lesbian, a lesbian trans woman, or simply queer. Some phrases people use to describe their non-binary gender identity include:

  • I am non-binary
  • I identify as non-binary
  • I am genderqueer
  • I am genderfluid
  • I am agender
  • I am gender-nonconforming
  • I am queer

A good rule of thumb is to use the term or word that the person uses to describe themselves. If you’re unsure what they like to be called, or what pronouns they use, ask them (in private).

How can I tell if someone is non-binary?
Put simply, you can’t. It’s not possible to tell from the outside that a person has a non-binary gender identity because your gender identity is an internal experience that isn’t necessarily reflected on the outside.

It’s important to know that gender expression is different from gender identity. Gender expression is how you present or appear externally, for example, what clothes you wear and the mannerisms you have. Gender identity is how you experience your gender internally, in your own mind. Someone can favour wearing skirts and dresses and not necessarily identify with a feminine gender identity.

What can I do to support non-binary people?
The best things allies can do to support non-binary people is to listen to non-binary people themselves. Follow non-binary activists such as CN Lester, Meg-John Barker or Juno Dawson.

You could follow gender nonconforming celebrities such as:

  • Singer Sam Smith (identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns);
  • ‘Umbrella Academy’ actor Elliot Page (identifies as a trans man and uses he/him and they/them pronouns);
  • Actor and model Cara Delevingne (identifies as genderfluid and uses she/her pronouns); and
  • ‘The Last of Us’ actor Bella Ramsey (identifies as non-binary and uses any pronouns).

You could follow or get involved with trans-specific services such as cliniQ, a trans sexual health and wellbeing service, or akt, a charity that supports LGBT youth facing homelessness or living in a hostile environment. You can read up on non-binary people’s experiences at queer bookshops Category Is Books and Gay’s The Word.

For more information, check out the following web pages: